THE GREAT ESCAPE - 24 March 1944
*** Having watched yet another re-run of this MGM movie, I am compelled to voice a few comments: ***
FACT: What transpired in the North, one of 5 compounds of Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Silesia, Germany, is a reminder of human courage, ability, ingenuity, endurance, and several other attributes. It is a story that has been told accurately in several books, but the film has flaws. For 22 months our Sagan commandant was Oberst Fredrich-Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, a WWI pilot wounded 3 times while earning 2 Iron Crosses. He married a Dutch baroness, remaining a staunch German but very anti-Nazi. He was a gentleman who treated all prisoners, including Soviets and Jews, well. He had coped with 262 escape attempts, including 100 by tunnels, a severe challenge to his small Luftwaffe staff, and he had to resist Gestapo/SS pressure to wrest command of aircrew POWs from the “incompetent” Luftwaffe.FICTION:
(1) NATIONALITIES were introduced by MGM. We considered ourselves family, all speaking English. Two of the main characters, played by James Garner and Steve McQueen are made out to be US whereas they were, in large measure, Shag Rees from Anglesey, Wales, and Red Noble from Penetangueshene, Ontario, but also with bits borrowed from Keith Ogilvie of Ottawa who stole a guard’s wallet with vital documents and Barry Davidson of Calgary, the scrounger. So, it is difficult to estimate that, in March 1944, of the 2,000 aircrew in the North Compound, there were 1,000 Britons, 300 Canadians, 200 Australians and New Zealanders, 200 Poles, and 300 made up of Dutch, Norwegians, Belgians, French, Danes, Greeks, South Africans, Rhodesians, Czechs, and Lithuanians, Jews included. All had flown with Commonwealth Air Forces. Our USAAF had been moved to the new South Compound in Sep 43. Some had contributed to North Compound escape activities and were moved much against our ‘family’ wishes.
(2) SUCCESSFUL ESCAPERS: We had planned for 250 but only 76 got out. All were recaptured except for two Norwegians who made it back via Sweden and one Dutchman who made it back via Holland, France, and Spain. All three spoke excellent German. In the film, the Dutchman, Bram Van der Stok, is depicted as an Australian.
(3) TOOLS: Most were home made, many from the large Klim (powdered milk) cans from Canadian Red Cross parcels, and from stolen pieces of iron. Some of the yellow tunnel soil was mixed in with the darker soil gardeners were digging, here and there, but there was no mass raking as the film depicts. Items like rakes and ice skates were distributed at times by the guards but on a very controlled basis. As they could be used as weapons, they were carefully collected after each loan of a few hours. The Germans did provide a few tomato plants and each room of 6 to 9 men could request about four. Sand was effectively dispersed in the scrimmages of rugger games and under the theatre we built.
(4) MOTORCYCLE CHASE: While there were many astounding, but undepicted, escape attempts, there was no such motorcycle chase. Steve McQueen wanted this included and MGM ignored the advice of Wally Floody, our Canadian chief tunneller, who, as advisor, wanted accurate scenes, sticking to Paul Brickhill’s (RAAF) account. He clashed with McQueen over several depictions. McQueen won. Movie goers, and Steve, liked chases.
(5) BLIND ESCAPER: We did have a few men go blind, both naturally and from wounds, but they endured the slow process of repatriation. Two RAF pilots did make an earlier escape, did get to a Luftwaffe aerodrome, and did get into an aircraft, but were caught when the engine would not start. The shooting of the forger was phony. I have had Canadian and British friends shot and killed by approaching troops after crash landing, but they were in RAF/RCAF aircraft. This was a Luftwaffe aircraft so those rushing to the scene would have expected German survivors.
(6) CAFÉ SHOOTING: The bartenders would not have remained at the scene to celebrate with a toast as the knownGerman reaction was to quickly round up those nearby and to shoot at least 50 for each German murdered.
(7) NIGHT TRAFFIC: Leaving our huts at night was rare and dangerous as dogs prowled the night compound. One night, when we were slow to lock shut our room wooden blackout shutters, a dog leaped at our windows. I can still see his fangs. After the last roll call on the day of the escape, still in daylight, many normal residents of hut 104 ambled into the vacated bunks of the escapers who slowly and casually crowded into tunnel-hut 104. A few made it after dark.
(8) GERMAN ACCOMMODATION was not in, or adjacent to, our compound. Their compound was out of sight behind numerous trees. Luftwaffe soldiers, usually rifle-armed, would take several minutes to reach and assemble in our compound and never in the numbers depicted in the film. Except for searches or roll calls, when all 15 huts, each with 17 rooms, had to be proven empty, and the number in each block on parade counted, the average number of Germans in the compound was about four. My job was to keep track of them. For many hours there would be no German in the compound. The guards in the perimeter towers, of course, had us under constant surveillance.
(9) FOURTH OF JULY: Only the USAAF celebrated their national day, but this was in 1943 when some of them did make a limited amount of booze from potatoes and raisins. Two, made up as one horse with a rider, did gallop to the parade ground during roll call to urinate (the man making up the rear of the horse had a concealed can of water), with the rider shouting “The British are Coming!” Luftwaffe Hauptmann Hans Pieber, usually the only officer we would see, went along with the prank and, in counting the assembled block, shouted to the recorder, “Zwei und achtig und ein pferd.” (82 men and one horse). The booze was then distributed to a selected few after which the top-ranking Commonwealth and USAAF officers were thrown into the large pool of water that was designed for fire-fighting.REFLECTION: It averaged about 2 weeks from the time of the very traumatic experience of being shot down until we found ourselves in a room with 6 to 9 bunks, double or triple stacked, in a permanent camp. We all had endured evasion, capture, many searches, a week’s solitary confinement during interrogation, transport to a permanent camp, and more interrogation, this time by established prisoners who needed to know we were also bone fide prisoners.
It was not until then that we fully realized our amazing good fortune: we were among the 17% who survived being shot down (we had known the odds); most had been well treated by the curious civilians who captured us; the police and Luftwaffe to whom we were handed were also courteous and respectful (we had feared rough treatment); we were in a large camp that, although primitive, was much better than expected; and there was some Red Cross food, but we were always hungry. Freed from operations we could cease contemplating how few hours we had yet to live. The war still had years to go and we were safe for at least a few months. Our taught nerves could relax.
Several weeks passed before we were gradually informed of all the escape activities that were in progress. Of course we all wanted to get home. Barbed wire is so confining to the human spirit. Having been loose for 2 days in March cold and rain with blood still trickling from wounds, I had learned how difficult it was to travel any distance in a country of 90 million enemies who guarded every road, bridge, rail yard, and waterway. Nevertheless, I joined X (the escape committee). I was assigned to Security, responsible for keeping track of, and recording, every German in the compound during my shifts. It was soon evident we were doing much more harm to ourselves than to the German war effort. This was a new camp in the midst of a pine forest. We cleared the stumps after Polish and Russian prisoners had cut down enough trees to make a large clearing for roll calls and for sports. Our guards soon learned that the remaining trees were concealing our escape activities, so those trees were also removed, making our ‘resort’ camp turn quite dreary and dusty.
We had a good library, ever increasing with books sent by next-of-kin. While most of us were high school boys many of the British and Europeans were older professionals and many conducted classes in a wide variety of subjects. I took several of these courses and I was able to enrol in a political science course with books provided by the University of Saskatchewan. We got daily BBC news via a radio we built with smuggled parts and we had a variety of German newspapers and magazines. We knew much more about the war than the people who were still fighting it.
Winter months were cold so I was grateful when RAF airmen’s greatcoats, captured in France, were distributed and my parents sent me a blanket to supplement the 2 provided by the Germans and made from the hair of murdered women.
As the war progressed, differences in philosophies increased. We all wanted to get home. We all knew that escaping and harassing the enemy war effort was a duty, even if increasingly risky. Many remained adamant in their desire to get outside the wire if only for a few hours of freedom. I had growing doubts about the wisdom of escaping.
German newspapers were displaying increasing anger over the destruction of civilian lives and property our bombers were causing. When a USAAF crew was shot down wearing jackets labelled “Murder Inc.” (After the Dick Tracy comic characters) pictures were published all over Germany as proof that we were Luftgangsters revelling in the slaughter of women and children. Hitler then ordered troops not to interfere to save downed airmen being beaten to death by irate civilians. Our worried German Commandant kept warning us that the climate for escaping had changed.
In the relative comfort of our Luftwaffe camps, few of us gave the Luftwaffe deserved credit for risking their lives in putting a shield around us to protect us from the Gestapo and SS. While we recognized our plight if the Luftwaffe lost control, we failed to understand how precarious Göring’s husbandry of aircrew POWs was. He saved thousands of us by convincing Hitler that RAF aircrew who came from occupied Europe should not be shot as he wanted because Churchill had made them all British citizens (which Göring knew was not true). Most of us, however, did feel that escapes should be low key and small scale in an environment that could promise little success, but would not explode in bloody reprisals. I argued we should work to enlarge the gulf between the SS and Luftwaffe as we would need them in a post-war Germany.
BIG X (Sqn Ldr Roger Bushell, a South African barrister and Spitfire pilot, shot down May 1940), retained an intense hatred of Germans of all stripes and was able to command a following who worked for an escape of hundreds that would involve millions of Germans neglecting war work to hunt us down. I, with most of the camp, believed that March 1944 was too early in the year to steal farm food and too late in the war for a mass escape that was sure to bring harsh reprisals. Survival was our main goal. We knew the Soviets would reach us before British, Canadian, and US forces and whether they would treat us as friend or foe was unknown, but there was still safety in numbers. I joined the group studying commando tactics around our remaining useable tunnel should the Soviets consider us undesirables.
Our mass escape did harm the German war effort in that 5 million people spent weeks hunting for those who were ranging far and wide across Germany. Three got back to Britain, but in reprisal the Gestapo shot Van der Stok’s brother in Holland and tortured his father to death. I remember shaking the hands of young friends as they left for the tunnel and seeing their ashes returned to us. Hitler ordered all 76 to be shot but Göring, who wanted none shot, persuaded him to limit it to 50. I also feel for our commandant. Our escape left him disgraced and impoverished. His family also suffered heavily with loss of homes and lives. He received rough treatment as a prisoner of the Allies, not allowed to see his destitute wife for 2 years. He had never handcuffed a prisoner but was handcuffed himself. Göring lost control of us to Himmler who gave the job to Gottlob Berger who, along with Eva Braun, failed to carry out Hitler’s harshest orders. I owe my life to them, but that is another story.